Experiences of Studying in a Public School of Delhi During 1960’s and 70’s

Nostalgia and flavours of those times By Jamil Urfi
Extracted from:‘Biswin Sadi Memoirs, growing up in Delhi during the 1960’s and 70’s’, Cinnamon Teal Press, 2018.

The Delhi Public School
  The Delhi Public School is a conspicuous landmark on that segment of the Mathura Road which is bang opposite the imposing Oberoi Intercontinental Hotel. In our days, the flyover between the two buildings had not been built—it was constructed during the Asian games in the 1970’s—and so there was a broad stretch of road in front of the school, where accidents used to happen frequently as speeding vehicles knocked down pedestrians. This picture taken in April 2019 from the top of the flyover.

The Delhi Public School is a conspicuous landmark on that segment of the Mathura Road which is bang opposite the imposing Oberoi Intercontinental Hotel. In our days, the flyover between the two buildings had not been built—it was constructed during the Asian games in the 1970’s—and so there was a broad stretch of road in front of the school, where accidents used to happen frequently as speeding vehicles knocked down pedestrians. The building itself is large and impressive with spiral staircases encased in towers on either side. At the bottom of one of them used to sit the school receptionist with her paraphernalia consisting of the telephone operator’s equipment in front of her. The base of the other tower also had a room with dozens of cups and trophies displayed in cupboards. This was the office of the director of physical education (DoPE), Mr Rajinder Singh, known to one and all as simply DOPE. The school principal, Mr Din Dayal, called ‘princi’ by the students and DOPE had been together at a well known boarding school in Dehradun as members of the staff. In 1962, when Din Dayal came to Delhi to take up the principal-ship of DPS, he brought his trusted lieutenant and man-Friday along with him. 

Stocky, well built (a boxers body), almost totally bald, DOPE looked like an archetype of a filmy thug. His trademark attire was tight drainpipe trousers (the fashion of the 1960’s—‘Beatlemania’) and dark goggles. In the winters, he donned a soft army cap, black leather jacket, and a scarf. All in all, with his rough, gruffly voice, he bore a close resemblance to Hindi film baddies. Some likened him to Ranjit, who was synonymous with villainous things on the silver screen, though everyone also maintained that DOPE was ‘sab ka baap’ and so Ranjit would be a mere baccha in front of him. Fortunately, since I never had much to do with sports, I was never on DOPE’s radar. While I certainly found him rather intimidating and dominating, his admirers, and there was a whole army of them, thought differently. DOPE was known to stick out for his boys and would not hesitate to bend rules to give his boys a chance. At the time of his death in 2010, several old students poured out their feelings, recalling instances of how DOPE had transformed their lives and made them ‘men out of boys’ (http://blogs.hindustantimes.com/capital-closeup/2010/03/24/remembering-rajendra-singh-of-dps/), if indeed boys do grow up. 

Old The Delhi Public School
Pages from the school almanac. The building itself is large and impressive with spiral staircases encased in towers on either side. At the bottom of one of them used to sit the school receptionist with her paraphernalia consisting of the telephone operator’s equipment in front of her. The base of the other tower also had a room ….the office of the director of physical education (DoPE), Mr Rajinder Singh, known to one and all as simply DOPE.

According to its website, DPS Mathura Road, a flagship of the brand name ‘DPS’, is ‘Deeply rooted in the post-independent ethos of the country having had an auspicious birth in 1949.’ In the late 1960s, when I joined it, DPS seemed to symbolize mobility, dreams, and aspirations of the Punjabi middle class, especially partition-displaced persons of some means, keen to secure their children’s future in the fast changing times of post-independence India. And in this enterprise, DPS was their vehicle of choice. Other English medium schools, whether run by Christian Missionaries or others (educational societies, trusts, etc.), seemed to be doing the same thing, primarily in terms of providing a head start by enabling a facility to speak and work in English besides, to some extent, providing quality education. (That the governments of the day had always encouraged such (private) schools to flourish, providing them with innumerable concessions, at the expense of state run schools, is another matter altogether, much debated and discussed and, we need not go into those issues here.) In this day and age who wants his children to be left behind and who indeed would want his children to study in a madarsa, pathshala, or a Hindi (vernacular) medium government school? 

The Delhi Public School Book
Pages from the school almanac—morning assembly prayers, national integration and patriotic songs sung by the school choir.

In our times the morning school assemblies used to be held in the playground (though now, I am told, it all happens inside with the prayers, etc. being relayed on loudspeakers installed in the class room). Princi Din Dayal, standing tall and thin like a stick insect, wearing spotlessly white clothes, first read out the prayers, which were never religious but inspiring passages from notable personalities. One was Tagore’s, ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high’, followed by a prayer in Hindi and then a patriotic song sung by the choir. Iqbal’s ‘Sare Jahan se acha’ and ‘Labh pe aati hai dua ban ke tamanna meri’ were often sung. I also remember one rather high-spirited number to the accompaniment of dramatic sounding music, which began as follows: 

Hame chunoti dene walon sunlo. 

Sunlo hum taiyaar hain, bedaar hain

Kal tak thei hum dhall, aaj hum  fauladi talwar hain, 

Hum taiyaar hain

Then, sounding a somewhat strident note, it went on further to say,

Hame Samajh kar pani hum ko peejane ki thani

O nadanoon, O nadanoon

Chal na sake gi ab aisi manmani

Ab aisi manmani

And then, the same proclamation again,

Hame chunoti dene walon sunlo….. 

The Delhi Public School Book
More Pages from the school almanac—morning assembly prayers, national integration and patriotic songs sung by the school choir.

This patriotic song obviously alluded to a war situation and the enemy could have been Pakistan with whom India had fought a couple of wars already. However, it is more likely that the enemy being alluded to was China with whom India had fought a war in 1962 and, it was widely believed, that India had been stabbed in the back and Prime Minister Pandit Nehru had committed a blunder in dealing with the enemy. 

Overall, there was an attempt made to present an ‘official’ version of the independence struggle, one element of which was to hang portraits of national leaders in the school building. In every class room a portrait of one of the national leaders—mostly Nehru or Gandhi, but in some cases Lal Bahadur Shastri, Sarojini Naidu, Maulana Azad, etc., used to adorn the walls. (This it seems was a fairly common practise in all schools of that period; probably still is). These framed pictures, with their garish colours, seemed like cut-outs from calendars or posters. The picture of Nehru had the leader dressed in an achkan with a red rose in the button hole. The picture of Gandhi was usually of a toothless, aged, smiling Gandhi, playing with a baby and trying to offer it a fruit. Thus, on account of such references to the freedom movement, we learnt to recognize our leaders and tried to behave patriotically. Music did the rest because in our music classes, the masterji sang patriotic songs, many of which turned out to be not so much the original songs of the freedom movement but popular filmy songs. For instance, ‘Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Sathiyon’, from the 1964 film Haqeeqat, and ‘Aiye watan, Aiye watan, hum ko teri kasam’, were huge hits.

The Delhi Public School Culture
In every class room a portrait of one of the national leaders —mostly Nehru or Gandhi used to adorn the walls.

I was in middle school when the 1971 Indo-Pak war erupted. There was a possibility that Pakistan would bomb Delhi and other Indian cities, so people were expected to cooperate with the government and take all necessary precautions. I remember in those days, it was compulsory to switch off the outdoor lights in the night, so that the enemy pilots could not detect any landmarks. Black paper was required to be pasted on windows and on the upper half of car’s headlights to prevent light beams from deflecting skywards. In cinema halls, film clips about the perils of loose talk and spreading rumours were screened in the interval. Yet I do not recall any single instance when a suggestion was made by anyone of ‘an enemy within’, i.e. Indian Muslims. Looking back it appears that people did not wear ‘patriotism’ on their sleeves as is probably the case now.

A siren had been mounted on the roof of Oberoi Hotel which was supposed to go off in case of an emergency situation, should it come to that. Once or twice, when it went off, I remember there was confusion and mayhem all around till someone came along and announced that everything was fine and they were just doing ‘testing’. 

The Delhi Public School Nostalgia
The famous picture of the defeated Pakistani commander Lt. General A. A. K. Niazi signing the instrument of surrender at the hands of Lt. General Jagjit Singh Aurora, sitting in front of a tent in what seemed like an overrun agricultural field flashed in everyone’s mind.

For us, children, those were interesting times. People talked about the Pakistani Generals—Yahya Khan, Tikka Khan, etc. The official story was that the cruel and murderous West Pakistanis were torturing their fellow countrymen (and co-religionists), the East Pakistanis, and India, always on the side of the weak and defenceless, had gallantly stepped in and come to the assistance of the Bengalis, helping them in their fight for independence and protecting them. For us boys, the most fascinating things were those related to warfare, tanks, and aircraft. The famous picture of the defeated Pakistani commander Lt. General A. A. K. Niazi signing the instrument of surrender at the hands of Lt. General Jagjit Singh Aurora, sitting in front of a tent in what seemed like an overrun agricultural field flashed in everyone’s mind. The story about the plight of refugees from East Pakistan who had crossed the border and come to India seeking shelter was also a topic of discussion. I remember in the school annual day function that year, one participant came dressed as a Bangla refugee for the fancy dress show. The girl, dressed in rags, carrying cloth bags and using a walking stick, came to the stage and in a weak voice said, ‘Joy Bangla, Joy Bangla’, amidst smirks and laughter from the audience. I think she also won a prize for her costume.

Abdul Jamil Urfi
Jamil Urfi’s book ‘Biswin Sadi Memoirs, growing up in Delhi during the 1960’s and 70’s’ which is a nostalgic, personal remembrance of the bygone century, was published last year. He was a campus correspondent for the ‘Times of India’ Publication Youth Times during his student days. He lives in Delhi and teaches at the University of Delhi.